Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but this should not be the case. There are some major differences. Guilt is usually relates to an act, an incident or an event. It may include multiple events, for example cheating on multiple tests. There is a starting and end point. It relates to an incident or group of incidents with a common theme. Shame, on the other hand, is inherent and actually can become part of personal identity. It shadows thoughts, actions, behaviors, communication patterns, and personal boundaries. It is a common effect of chronic trauma, and is very important to be aware of if you have experienced trauma or secondary trauma. It is not an actual symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, but it is a lasting emotional effect that should be discussed and explored more frequently.
Effects of Shame
Shame filled thoughts are filled with negative self-talk, low self-esteem, feeling that everyone else is better or that everyone else has it more together. Thoughts focus on being bad or not worthy and feeling like you will be “found out,” meaning everyone will realize you are bad, or inadequate. This mindset often prevents individuals from getting help when needed because they feel that if anyone knew what they did, what they’ve experienced, or what they’ve witnessed, then they would judge them, think bad of them, and not want to be around them. Many people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to forget their shame, but the cycle of addiction actually leads to more shame and hopelessness.
Actions and behaviors that are driven by shame include apologizing often when you don’t do anything wrong, becoming embarrassed easily, avoiding eye contact, and responding to others like you are in trouble or did something wrong even when you didn’t. Harmful communication patterns that often involve shame include omitting or avoiding being truthful even when you want to be, accepting responsibility for the actions of others, and not setting boundaries that you want to or need to set.
Shame’s Effect on Therapy
Shame is not easy to overcome, especially if shame keeps people from admitting they need help or getting counseling. When beginning therapy, bringing up all the negative experiences and trauma can cause more shame. This leads to an emotional rollercoaster of feeling relief from receiving help and opening up, and then experiencing shame, distrust, and negative self talk. This is totally NORMAL! When experiencing emotional healing people often feel worse before feeling better. I personally went through this experience, besides watching this happen with most clients.
The road to emotional healing is not a straight, perfect path. For me, becoming a Christian and understanding all my sins were forgiven, that Jesus loved me and saw me as worthy and white as snow, that He had a good plan for my life, and that He would never abandon me, was the beginning of healing, but I had a long way to go. I went through multiple phases of healing followed by low points; it was so difficult to let go of my past and I could not stop reliving my past. The key was that I never gave up, I prayed constantly, and I asked for help and support from counselors, friends, and anyone qualified to help. I stopped keeping in the experiences I was ashamed of. As I opened up despite my shame, I realized many people had similar experiences and if everyone was more vulnerable shame would lose its power. I started to live FREED (focused, rational, enlightened, empowered, determined) and actually experience life instead of letting shame hold me back from growing, learning, and experiencing.
Every time you open up during a counseling session, ask for support from a friend or family member or pray it is a victory. You will find that you are not alone and that there are actually many people with similar experiences to you, no matter how bad your situation was. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, especially with a therapist, will help you to heal and live free. I recommend that any work of this nature should be done with a therapist. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to share your story or learn more from me. I would love to hear from you.
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